October 4th, 2022
In an unexpected move, the Jehovah’s Witness Church, headquartered in New York State, has issued an Elders-only announcement in which Illinois ministers are prompted to take an online training course sponsored by the Department of Children and Family Services.
This announcement, directed only to Illinois-based Jehovah’s Witness elders, was officially released on October 4th, just six months after church elders Michael Penkava and Colin Scott were convicted in McHenry county for violating Illinois’ mandatory reporting laws. The two elders were sentenced to a year of probation, fines, and community service after they knowingly violated Illinois State law requiring ministers to report allegations of child abuse.
The two men argued that the Jehovah’s Witness Legal Department in New York advised them that they were under no obligation to report the sexual abuse of a 6-year-old girl in 2006. Twelve years later, the girl came forward to the Crystle Lake Illinois Police Department and reported that she had been raped and molested repeatedly by her own father, Arturo Hernandez-Pedraza throughout the 12-year period. Pedraza was arrested in 2019 and found guilty by a McHenry County jury on October 23rd, 2019. He was sentenced to a total of 50 years imprisonment.
One year later, prosecutors in McHenry county issued non-custodial arrest warrants for elders Michael Penkava and Colin Scott. The State charged the two men with criminal misdemeanor violations of the mandatory reporting act, a crime that carries a maximum penalty of a year in prison and up to a $2,500 fine. The elders waived their right to a jury trial and elected for a bench trial in the courtroom of Judge Mark Gerhardt. On March 18th, 2022, both defendants were found guilty. Judge Gerhardt sentenced them one week later. Neither defendant appealed the verdicts.
On October 3rd, an active Jehovah’s Witness elder came forward under the condition of anonymity to report that Jehovah’s Witnesses have issued a new directive recommending that Illinois elders take the online version of Mandatory Reporter Training “at their earliest convenience.”
The letter to Illinois elders was sent along with a second document titled “Questions and Answers.“
In the Announcement letter, elders are advised that “Illinois law requires ministers (elders) to attend state-provided training on reporting child abuse.” This Illinois law went into effect on January 1st, 2020, but there is no evidence to indicate that the Jehovah’s Witnesses complied with the legislation until after the criminal conviction of the two elders, Penkava and Scott.
Elders in Illinois are steered away from in-person training by directing them to the DCFS training website at https://mr.dcfstraining.org/.
After completing the online training modules, elders will receive a certificate of completion that is effective for three years. Additionally, prior to participation in the online training, elders in Illinois are told that they must review the “Questions and Answers” in advance. This is followed by the statement that “this training program does not change the direction outlined in the Shepherd book, chapter 14, paragraph 7. This direction still applies and should be followed.”
The Jehovah’s Witness elders employ the 274-page “Shepherd Book” as their confidential manual of instructions and guidance for handling congregation matters. Chapter 14 is exclusively devoted to the subject of child abuse. Paragraph 7 states, in part:
To ensure that elders comply with child-abuse reporting laws, two elders should immediately call the Legal Department for legal advice when the elders learn of an accusation of child abuse. A call should be made even when both persons involved are minors. The elders should not ask an alleged victim, the accused person, or anyone else to call the Legal Department on the elders’ behalf…
This directive does not appear to represent any change in the policies of Jehovah’s Witnesses with respect to the reporting of child abuse to secular authorities. Instead of permitting church elders to report allegations of abuse directly to the police, Jehovah’s Witness elders are required to contact their New York Legal Department, which documents in meticulous detail the nature and particulars of the abuse as part of their established intake process.
However, the role and nature of the Witnesses’ Legal Department has become increasingly suspect in recent years. This has cast doubt upon the legality of advice administered by anonymous staffers at the Patterson New York legal offices. While investigating the Penkava and Scott criminal prosecutions, JWCA learned that the Illinois elders relied upon legal advice that was administered initially from a non-attorney, then later from a Jehovah’s Witness attorney named Greg Allen, who was not licensed to practice law in Illinois. In fact, there is no evidence suggesting that anyone in the Church’s Legal Department is authorized to practice law or give advice in Illinois.
Additionally, concerns have arisen in connection with civil child abuse cases that call into question whether Jehovah’s Witness elders are entitled to attorney-client privilege.
Attorney-client privilege suggests that the Legal Department at Jehovah’s Witness headquarters has entered into an attorney-client relationship with local Witness elders, but the newly-leaked documents indicate otherwise.
According to this document, “Since elders are volunteers of their local congregation and not employees of any corporation used by Jehovah’s Witnesses, please keep your own record and comply with retaking the course every three years.”
The prior paragraph poses a similar question:
QUESTION: The course prompts me to identify myself as an employee of a certain agency or organization. How should I respond to this without giving the wrong impression about being employed clergy of “Watchtower” or “Jehovah’s Witnesses?”
ANSWER: we reccomend that you identify yourself as a “religious volunteer” and reply “none” to the question about an employer.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses have maintained a long-standing practice of declaring that their members – including elders – are not agents of, or employed by the Church or any of its corporations. This policy is designed to protect the Church itself from liability, but leaves individual elders and members defenseless against criminal or civil complaints.
This stands in conflict with the fact that the actions of Witness elders are closely monitored and controlled, with no ability of an elder to act independently of the Church’s directions.
In the case of child abuse allegations, elders are required to communicate with and abide by the guidance they receive from their New York headquarters, including the Legal Department. Yet nowhere in any Jehovah’s Witness manuals or elder directives is there a statement that clarifies and identifies Witness elders as clients of the Church’s Legal Department.
As a general rule, the Jehovah’s Witness Legal Department is selective about any cases it takes on board, and only offers assistance when the Church identifies a challenge to its Constitutional rights.
According to the leaked letter to Elders, the Coordinator of Elders for each Illinois congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses should ensure that all elders comply with the mandatory training requirement.
This does not mean that elders will comply with State reporting laws.
October 4th, 2022 Announcement to Elders in Illinois
October 4th, 2022 Questions and Answers related to Announcement
Illinois Department of Children and Family Services website
Online Training for Mandated Reporters – website